Bottom Line Up Front
- After nearly two decades at war in Afghanistan, the United States seems to be seriously pursuing a negotiated peace agreement with the Taliban.
- As part of any negotiated settlement, the United States will push the Taliban to distance itself from al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
- Washington has minimal leverage in negotiations, as the Taliban controls large swaths of territory and the capability to conduct spectacular attacks.
- One consequence of reduced U.S. leverage is a greater role for Moscow, which has worked behind the scenes to solidify influence in Afghanistan.
After nearly two decades at war in Afghanistan, the United States seems to be seriously pursuing a negotiated peace agreement with the Taliban. United States peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been conducting intense diplomatic negotiations with the Afghan Taliban’s leadership in Doha, Qatar. The U.S. military and the insurgents have been locked in a stalemate for years, with neither side able to escalate to victory over the other. The most recent report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction noted that the Afghan government controls territory on which 63.5 percent of the population lives. While the Afghan population is exhausted and traumatized, and the Trump administration is seeking to bring the conflict to a close as part of a campaign promise to reduce U.S. troops abroad, the insurgents control territory that over 10 percent of the population inhabits. Despite years of diplomatic pressure on Pakistan, the Taliban still maintain a safe haven in Quetta and enjoy the support of Pakistan’s military and elite intelligence service, the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence.
As part of any negotiated settlement, the United States will push the Taliban to distance itself from al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. This is the same objective the United States invaded Afghanistan to achieve in 2001, with the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom. And while the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda has ebbed and flowed over time, at present, militants from al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) are embedded in Taliban units and serve as trainers and advisers. The quid pro quo for the Taliban to officially and finally break ties with al-Qaeda and its affiliates could be the withdrawal of American soldiers. Afghan government officials are concerned that a drastic drawdown of U.S. troops would lead the Taliban to retake more territory, ignoring the terms of any cease fire when it proved advantageous. A peace agreement would also exclude the so-called Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), which would have more room to maneuver without a U.S. military presence. Moreover, there would be major societal setbacks as well. Women’s rights and other recent advancements could be rolled back with the Taliban, which adheres to an austere version of Islamic governance, as part of any power sharing arrangement.
Washington has minimal leverage in negotiations. In addition to controlling large swaths of territory, even after 17 years of combat the insurgents retain the capability to conduct spectacular attacks. Moreover, President Trump has repeatedly and openly discussed his desire to extricate the United States from what he has called ‘unwinnable wars.’ There is a well-known saying in Afghanistan, allegedly relayed by a Taliban commander to Canada’s former Chief of the Defence Staff: ‘You have the watches, but we have the time.’ Simply put, Western military forces will eventually leave Afghanistan – under any terms – but as ethnic Pashtuns, the Taliban will never leave, for they are home. The insurgents recognize that while they may never be able to defeat the United States militarily, neither can the U.S. completely pacify the insurgency. As the legendary insurgent maxim suggests, the Taliban are winning simply by not losing. The U.S. military cannot and should not remain in Afghanistan indefinitely, especially given the difficulties in formulating a coherent strategy, instead relying on tactical victories which have been ephemeral and difficult to sustain.
One consequence of reduced U.S. leverage is a greater role for the Kremlin, which has worked behind the scenes to solidify influence in Afghanistan. Even as the U.S. has pursued diplomacy with the Taliban vis-à-vis the Qataris, Russia has been conducting its own diplomatic overtures, putting together a diplomatic conference in Moscow in November 2018 that brought together members of the Afghan government’s High Peace Council, as well as Taliban delegates, and representatives from regional power brokers, including Islamabad, Tehran and Beijing. In early February, Russia invited Taliban representatives and members of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s political opposition to talks in Moscow, potentially signaling Russia’s attempt to insert itself in Kabul’s affairs as a legitimate stakeholder in negotiated settlement. A more involved role for Moscow has surprised many, mostly due to Russia’s bloody history in Afghanistan (when it was the Soviet Union) during its occupation of the country from 1979 to 1989. After spending nearly two decades at war in Afghanistan while simultaneously supporting the Afghan government and the Afghan National Security Forces—not to mention the money and lives expended in this conflict—the United States may still find itself marginalized as regional powers assume a greater interest in shaping the future of the country.